South County’s World War II Foundation Offers New Ways to Experience History

Documentary filmmaker Tim Gray’s museum meets students and veterans where they are

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Students file off a school bus for a field trip at 344 Main Street, Wakefield, but inside the stage is set for the Europe and Pacific theaters of World War II. Likely these students – who may be coming from all parts of Rhode Island and of all ages – have learned about D-Day in a classroom or have seen maps and photos online, but nothing quite compares to coming face to face with real artifacts and holding a section of the USS Arizona at the World War II Foundation Global Education Center and Museum.

“Some of the original World War II items are colorful, some are loud, and some catch younger people’s attention because they were actually damaged in battle, and students are interested in their backstory,” explains filmmaker and founder Tim Gray. “A lot of the students who visit are the same age as those who were doing the fighting.”

Thought goes into the collections found at the museum, both to best tell the story and to consider the audience. “We seek out items we believe younger people will gravitate toward and hopefully then want to know more about their history,” Gray continues. “It’s an incredible tactile experience for visitors and it’s designed to be that way. We are not a dusty old museum. We are very hands on.”

Not a place to shy away from new technology, virtual reality (VR) films cast on large Oculus Quest headsets add to the immersive experience. Gray is known for his award-winning documentaries, even sending visitors home with a free film of their choice, so VR seemed like a natural addition. Offerings span D-Day, Pearl Harbor, and the Battle of the Bulge with the option for students to take home a small cardboard VR viewer to watch films on their smartphones, too. “They’ve become very, very popular,” says Gray.

These types of encounters elicit excitement for eager learners, but the museum is also a sober experience for veterans. “We have had many World War II veterans visit over the years, and it brings them back to a time that defined their lives,” says Gray. “They all seem to be young again when they tour, pointing out the items they used in combat or on the home front. Many shed tears. It was a definitive time in their lives, both heroic and horrific.

“The veterans themselves may not remember what they had for breakfast that morning, but they sure remember the uniform they wore in the war or the type of rifle they carried in combat when they see it again at our museum.”

The center is open to the public, but you can also catch Gray’s work airing on Rhode Island PBS and other TV stations. The foundation’s newest production, Her War, Her Story: World War II, narrated by Jane Lynch, comes out this month. “It was not just America’s war; it was not just a man’s war,” says Gray. “There were women in America who worked in factories, women in England who witnessed the German ‘Blitz’ on the country, women who grew up in Nazi Germany, survived the Auschwitz death camp, who were nurses or African-Americans serving in a segregated Army. One woman we feature worked on breaking the top secret German Enigma Code, one of the war’s most top-secret assignments.”

Also debuting this month is Gray’s Jack Taylor: The Enterprise, narrated by Gary Sinise, about the fighter pilot who founded Enterprise Rent-A-Car after the war. It will be the foundation’s 31st film to date.

With Veterans Day on November 11, a visit to the museum is a good way to remember the meaning behind the day off, and especially poignant for the children and grandchildren of WWII veterans. Says Gray, “Since many of the men and women of that generation rarely talked about what they did or saw, their families want to know more. We try and fill in some gaps for them.” The museum is open Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10am-4pm, or by appointment. Admission is free for veterans. Call 862-3030 visit WWIIFoundation.org

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